Friday, May 22, 2015

Travel Writing

This evening, coming back from work, I found myself locked out of the house. I had forgotten to carry the keys and the wife had gone out and was expected to be back in an hour. To kill time, I had idlis at Grand Sweets near my house and then walked down North Usman Road and walked into New Booklands, a basement bookshop that mainly sells Tamil books but also has a small collection of English books.
There, I found a book which had been missing from my collection for many years now (I have no idea how I lost it): a collection of short stories by Salman Rushdie called East, West, his only work of fiction that I found easy to understand.I had bought my first copy in Delhi, probably from one of those bookshops in Janpath, in 1998 or 1999. The price, I remember, was written in pencil on the opening page: Rs 80. This evening I bought it for Rs 399. I also bought, for Rs 895, Travels in Asia and Africa by Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century Moroccan explorer, one of the greatest travellers (and travel writers) to walk on this planet.
Back home, I lit a cigarette and opened the Battuta book, and in two hours finished 200 of the 340 pages. My phone remained untouched as I raced through the book, finding it difficult to put it down having begun the journey across medieval Asia, including India. How vividly he describes the practice of sati! It is a marvel that such a documents exists, describing life in 14th century India (even before the Mughals arrived) — and a matter of great shame that I never read it before. Never too late, as they say.
I don’t know what exactly got me interested in travel writing — I am talking as a reader as well as a writer — but I guess it has something to do with the books I read (and reread) during my younger days: My Son’s Father and Never at Home, both by Dom Moraes, and An Indian Summer by James Cameron. These books, even though autobiographical, are mostly about places, and the writers combine observation with introspection to make you feel you have made the journeys with them — growing older with them, getting wiser with them. It is one thing when a writer takes you to a place, quite another when he takes you along.
Incidentally, the very first book I ever bought (discounting the books on improving your skills with the English language) happened to be a travel book: An Area of Darkness, by V.S. Naipaul. I bought it sometime in 1993, from Current Book Depot in Kanpur, barely months after I began my career as a journalist, with The Pioneer. Naipaul would not call it a travel book: he would like to call it a book of inquiry; but since the book was a result of his travels in a foreign land — India — I would call it a travel book. While in Kanpur I never bothered reading the book, even though I took great care of it.
In 1994, when I moved to Delhi, supposedly the Mecca of journalism, to join the Press Trust of India, the very first book I purchased there, from a long-defunct shop called Bookworm in Connaught Place, also happened to be a travel book: Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days. I don't remember reading it with great interest because it sounded like the script of a documentary — it was intended to be one.
It was only after I bought — and read — Dom Moraes’s My Son's Father that places started interesting me. I bought the sequel, Never at Home, soon after, and a few months after that, James Cameron’s An Indian Summer. The chemistry between the authors and the places they live in, in these books, made me want to document my own chemistries with places. And then I read a few more books: George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris, William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns and Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That. I became convinced that in order to extract the full value of your association with a place or places, you need to record your experiences and share them with readers — in the form of a book. Oh, how can I forget Hemigway’s A Moveable Feast, perhaps the finest portrait of Paris ever produced.
In 2001, after I moved from Delhi to Chennai, I fell in love with Somerset Maugham. Almost every story of Maugham has the protagonist travelling to a new land — and travelling in great style. For several months, I did not have a TV at home and I would invariably have my dinner — usually hot rice and arhar dal — over a Maugham novel.
And then one day I discovered Paul Theroux, and thought he was the greatest travel writer ever — this was after I finished reading The Great Railway Bazaar. Soon I was buying books by Bruce Chatwin and Colin Thubron. Great writers, great places to be written about. Wow. This was around 2005.
Today, 10 years later, when I am far wiser and have myself produced three books about places, I find myself worshipping a different set of idols: Ryszard Kapuscinski, Trevor Fishlock, Jonah Blank, David Yeadon. These gentlemen understand the soul of the soil they are writing about — and help you write better — but strangely they are hardly written about.

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